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'If you don't understand - just shut up'

Rob Bartlett
May 16, 2014
Leon McKenzie believes attitudes towards depression in sport are slowly improving © Getty Images
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"You're always going to get critics and you're always going to get people judging. But what they don't understand is that I played 17 years of professional football. It's not about 'because Dad did it' or 'because Duke did it' - it's nothing to do with that at all."

For Leon McKenzie, a former Premier League footballer who made his professional boxing debut at the age of 35, the comparisons to his father Clinton, a British and European champion, and uncle Duke, a three-time world champion, are unavoidable.

But while Clinton and Duke remain behind the scenes, working tirelessly to ready him for his fifth professional fight against Danny Brown on Saturday, this is not their journey; once McKenzie steps onto the canvas, they step back. This is his path.

The journey for McKenzie has not been smooth either. Throughout his time in football, he endured long battles with depression and in December 2011 revealed that he had attempted to commit suicide while a player for Charlton.

"It's nothing do with money, or how much money you earn. There can just be certain things in your life that that you're just not happy with," McKenzie told ESPN. "That can be caused through a loss of someone, you might be going through a divorce. It might be to do with children. It can be anything.

"Everyone has got an opinion and that's fair enough. Everyone is entitled to an opinion. But if you don't have that intimate understanding just shut up.

McKenzie on...

  • His dream fight: "A fight I think would sell tickets would probably be a fight against Chris Eubank Jr. He's doing his thing, he's a good fighter and I think it would be a lovely challenge for me."
  • Winning at the venue his Dad first fought at: "It was sentimental, but we weren't getting too excited. There's many more fights to come and much more to achieve. If we strive to win something, you might see a few tears because that would be a massive achievement."
  • On his career so far: "I'm taking each fight as it comes. I am still unbeaten and that's a big statement in itself in regards to how late I came into the game. I've taken it in my stride."
  • Training: "To be the best, you have to put the work in. I'm hard on myself, but Dad is old school. He knows when I'm working and knows how to get the best out of me."

"There are a lot of things you can look at - a lot of distractions. For me, money is just a mask. It's just a cover up. If you're not feeling too great about yourself, then you might be in position where you're able to go to the shops and spend this or go and buy a car - but it's only temporary.

"Those things don't really mean anything. It's taken me a very, very long time to understand and appreciate life a bit more. It's not all about material stuff - as much as it's nice to have it, it's not the be all and end all."

Despite his switch to the ring, McKenzie is committed to using his own experience to help others, who may be suffering in silence like he did. This July, he plans to start a counselling course, both for his own personal development and as an opportunity to become a qualified practitioner.

Whether that will progress to a job in the profession remains to be seen. But helping other people is what has spurred McKenzie on and he believes attitudes towards depression are beginning to improve - even in football.

"Gradually, I think they're changing. There are a few people working in the PFA now who I'm very close with that are trying to change a few things - I'm hoping it will develop.

"Nationally, it's only treated negatively because whoever is writing about it is ignoring it to the point where they have absolutely no understanding of depression whatsoever.

"Trust me on this one - if you understand depression and how serious it is, when you're writing about it you'll be very careful and compassionate. 'Get over yourself' or 'Pick yourself up' - it doesn't work like that.

"What has spurred me on to help other people - and I'm still striving and striving to do that - is what I've been through. I suffered a lot in silence. Why?

"There are other people suffering and it's not all about me. For me to just sit down for the rest of my life and never try and do something, that's a waste of life - regardless of what I achieve in my careers. The most success you can achieve in life is through helping others. By doing that, if you're saving lives, that's more than any belt or any trophy."

McKenzie's mental strength developed throughout his later years, but his fighting prowess was evident during his time in and around football changing rooms. So much so, in fact, many other players half expected his switch of sports.

"A lot of footballers knew of my capabilities within that field - so a lot of them weren't that shocked. I've had a lot of support from a lot of fellow former football friends, so it's been nice. Even boxers now are starting to give me that respect - 'Okay, you can fight.' That's a nice thing to have as well. There are a lot of experienced boxers giving me credit."

The story of fellow footballer-turned-boxer Curtis Woodhouse, McKenzie's one-time Peterborough team-mate who recently claimed the British light-welterweight title, remains an inspiration. However, McKenzie wants to write his own story.

"He spoke to me [about boxing]," McKenzie said. "I was still playing, I was coming into my prime football-wise and he always said 'You're going to move to a big club soon'. Then he said: 'I'm going in'. I looked at him like he was crazy. But, you know, British Champion. Thanks for coming."

If McKenzie is still undefeated after Saturday's bout at Bethnal Green's York Hall - the same venue at which father Clinton made his professional bow some 37 years ago - a title fight this December will be firmly on his agenda. He may never match Woodhouse's heroics, but winning any title would be a massive achievement for McKenzie.

"It would be bigger than anything I've ever done football-wise, just because of the timing of everything. Let's be honest: this is my fifth fight coming up, I've only been fighting just over year.

"Whatever I'm doing, I'm doing something right and I'm taking things very seriously. So whatever I achieve title-wise, it'll be bigger than anything I've ever achieved."

Better than scoring the goal which sealed victory for Norwich against Manchester United, Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo in 2005?

"Yeah. This is harder for me now, to get something in terms of boxing. It's harder. It'd be worth it."

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